From 9/11 to Mass Surveillance, The Man Who Knew Too Much – Thomas Drake on RAI (2/5)
On Reality Asserts Itself, former NSA senior executive Mr. Drake and host Paul Jay talk about the “dark state” and how 9/11 opens up disturbing questions about power, who we are, who’s in charge and the secret subversion of the U.S. constitution
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
We’re going to continue our interview with Thomas Drake, whistleblower, former senior executive, I guess you could say, or officer at the NSA, and also someone who stuck his neck out, very concerned about the role the NSA played both in not preventing 9/11, which he says they could have, and not revealing the NSA secretly developing a mass surveillance state, which he then helped to expose, and other things. He’s a man who stuck his neck out.
Thanks for joining us.
So in part one we talked about how deliberate this process is and the question of how much of this is lack of prioritization–and by this I mean the suppression, withholding of evidence that various intelligence agencies gathered prior to 9/11 that might have prevented 9/11. And one of the things that is easiest to focus on, ’cause there’s other examples as well, but one of these guys in San Diego, two guys that FBI know are there, CIA know are there, NSA know are there. And in a report or a public memorandum that you and some of your colleagues sent to President Obama in 2014 titled “NSA Insiders Reveal What Went Wrong”, in relating the NSA, you say this–I should say, the statement says this:
“Was it a case of gross ineptitude on NSA’s part; or was NSA deliberately withholding information linking al-Mihdhar to the known al-Qaeda base in Yemen?”
JAY: I mean, what you’re suggesting: it could have been deliberate. Why would they do it?
THOMAS DRAKE, WHISTLEBLOWER AND FMR. NSA SENIOR EXEC.: You have to understand–I want to come back to this [incompr.] don’t think some of it is fully appreciated, because it’s easy to say that it was deliberate, it’s easy to say they withheld it on purpose, it’s easy to say they knew this and didn’t share it.
Counterterrorism at NSA was not a priority at all. It just wasn’t. The office that even dealt with it was a backwater office of about 20 people. I used to work extensively with them, particularly after 9/11. They themselves complained about all the reports that they had been issuing for years and years and years, largely in response to the Tenet memo; the systems blinking red, all the way back to 1988, would continuously fall on deaf ears.
JAY: But the Clinton presidency took it seriously enough to appoint Richard Clarke to essentially a cabinet-level position. I mean, that’s taking terrorism seriously. It’s the Bush presidency that demotes him.
DRAKE: Yeah, because Cheney didn’t trust Clarke at all.
JAY: So why not replace him and have someone else at the cabinet level?
DRAKE: Because it gets in the way, and the potential that he may say something out of turn. They didn’t trust him. So if you can’t control–if you don’t trust somebody, then obviously you don’t believe you can control them.
JAY: And you suggested–said, not suggested, in the last segment that Cheney sets up his own back channels to get intelligence directly to him.
DRAKE: Extraordinary. He basically created his–with all the key leaders, and then some, all the way down into the bowels of each agency.
JAY: So if the NSA isn’t prioritizing terrorism, isn’t that a decision not to prioritize it at a time when you’re getting all this information saying there’s such real threats that–?
DRAKE: Yeah, but you’re also getting a staggering amounts of information. You’ve got to remember, part of the problem here was the glut of information. You were just getting flooded. I remember later the FBI even talking about this with me even prior to 9/11, just staggering amounts of information coming in. How do you sort through it all? How do you make sense of it all? This was the great challenge that NSA faced, one of the reasons I was hired. How do you make sense–in a massive stream of data, basically oceans of data, how do you find the drops that matter? And that was part of the challenge.
JAY: But Tenet says it’s the highest priority facing the United States. So they’ve sifted through all this stuff and they’ve come to the conclusion–.
DRAKE: Saying it’s a priority doesn’t mean you’re actually going to find what’s of priority. That’s part of the disconnect here. Saying it is, by virtue of what we knew at the time, but then actually finding those things to take action–. Remember, intelligence fundamentally is about indications and warning. You have to have the indications, but then you have to report it as a warning. Those are tipoffs. Those are alerting people. But if you don’t do that and the action’s not taken, it doesn’t matter if Tenet sits there all day hollering the sky is falling when it actually is. I can keep my head buried in the sand for a long, long time because nothing has happened yet.
JAY: Right, except some stuff had happened.
DRAKE: Well, nothing had happened in, quote-unquote, the homeland.
JAY: Well, they’d already attacked the World Trade Center, as you said in part one.
DRAKE: That was sort of forgotten.
JAY: I’m going to keep after you here.
DRAKE: That’s okay. No, I admit it’s part of the contradiction.
JAY: ‘Cause that’s what I’m hearing from you is this contradiction that–
DRAKE: It’s a fundamental contradiction.
JAY: –we can follow one line of conversation and you’ll say they let it happen, and then another one–.
DRAKE: It was convenient to let it happen. Knowing something would happen, why would you actually want to make an effort to prevent it? Because by letting it happen you would have your excuse. Cheney had made it clear, right, crystal clear what he wanted to do was reestablish the authority of the president.
JAY: And in Project for the New American Century, they actually come out and say all the things we should be doing in terms of asserting U.S. military, then political power in this new post-Soviet era, we need a new Pearl Harbor, ’cause American public opinion has no taste for more war.
DRAKE: That’s why I said it was convenient to allow the course of events there do, and whatever would happen would happen. Knowing something would happen, why would you want to stop it?
JAY: That’s why I’m saying the de-prioritization is not unconscious.
DRAKE: No, I would agree. It’s not. But if you’re at the NSA, you do have the dynamic of you’re going to culturally not really–’cause it’s not a priority. And remember, all of this was a super close hold. The vast majority of NSA is not on the counterterrorism mission. They’re doing all the traditional stuff.
JAY: Same thing. Coleen Rowley I’ve interviewed. And maybe we’ll link to her interview so you can find them as we’re doing this. She said in the interview, ’cause I asked her a somewhat similar question, she said the FBI was specifically told, don’t prioritize terrorism, by Cheney. That was actual instructions, that this is not the priority of our administration, which is part of why she says they couldn’t get the FBI’s attention, to really pay attention to what they had found in Minneapolis.
DRAKE: That still doesn’t matter, though. I realize that’s a huge factor in terms of saying it isn’t, but you’re obligated under the Constitution to provide for the common defense. If you have information that rises to a level that says something is happening and it’s going to be really bad, you’ve got to share it, you’ve got to bring in the key people, you’ve got to take action to prevent it. That’s the whole point. Now, if you–I have argued this. I’ve said this before. That whole process was subverted by Cheney and company.
DRAKE: So the system–what I’m saying: the system itself was essentially set aside. The secret channels were the ones that were utilized. And they knew much better than anybody else that something big was going to happen. They didn’t actually know exact time or date. There was actually more than just passing evidence that they’d wanted to do what ultimately happened much earlier. They just weren’t able to make it all happen. We know about all the test flights. We know about–you have James Woods, who actually was interviewed, realizing that one of the flights he took, one of the many flights he took from the East to the West Coast, he remembers certain people, right, of Middle Eastern descent who were on those airplanes, on those flights. It was clear that they had spent a long time–.
JAY: James Woods.
DRAKE: The actor. Yeah. They knew they had spent a long time working this out, making observations, testing how secure or insecure our system, our airline in particular, and all the security mechanisms.
JAY: Now, one of the things that has come out of–came out of Bob Graham’s joint congressional investigation is this famous 28 pages of their report. And essentially Graham has acknowledged–and there’s been press reports–that what are in these 28 pages is the evidence, they say, of direct Saudi role in financing and facilitating–and, according to Graham, Saudi government role in financing and facilitating. If this is true, the NSA must be hearing this stuff. This is part of what the NSA must not be passing on. It’s not just about the information in San Diego. They’ve got to know about the whole Saudi connection.
DRAKE: Yeah. But that’s political. That’s geopolitics at the highest level. You’re not going to counter the president when it comes to that, or the vice president for that matter. This is really serious stuff. You’re talking kind of the heart of dark government, what I call the double government. This is the other government in action. You’ve set it up in a way that obviously you’re going to protect the Saudis. And, yes, clearly the Saudis had a huge–most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
Remember, I can look this gift horse right in the mouth and say [what is so (?)]. But that’s what most people don’t want to do, because it opens up some really disturbing questions about power and who we are and who’s in charge.
JAY: And when did you start asking yourself these particular kinds of questions?
DRAKE: Oh, early on in my life. Early on. I early on, because of experience I had, never trust anybody in any position of power or authority, because they’re usually up to no good or there’ll abuse their positions of power or authority. That’s why I wear a Q. It’s question everything, especially authority.
JAY: And why did you then work for so many years in the state, one form or another, in this dark state?
DRAKE: It was serving my country and it was–I’m in the system. There’s a longer history. I actually blew the whistle when I was in the Air Force. I blew the whistle when I was a contractor.
DRAKE: Oh, on a major program at NSA called MINSTREL, something the FBI reminded me of–says, yeah, we know about your whistleblowing of MINSTREL. It was actually–it was supposed to modernize the voice processing, bring it into the modern era.
So, yes, it was serving my country, but you’ve got to keep the secret government in check, because it tends to abuse itself. We have too many incidents. I mean, you can go back to the Gulf of Tonkin, where you deliberately manipulated, actually created and framed the intelligence to make it look like the North Vietnamese had actually attacked when they hadn’t. And, of course, that was the excuse that Johnson needed to expand the war. Right? And what a disaster that was.
JAY: Nixon torpedoing Johnson’s negotiation with the North Vietnamese.
DRAKE: That’s a whole ‘nother one.
JAY: And if you’re interested in that one, we have an interview about that where we actually play the tapes that the Johnson Library released where he accused Nixon of acting like a traitor and said 50,000 more American boys’ lives are going to be on your head. Nixon ignored him.
DRAKE: See, this is all history that burdens me. Okay? This is why I try not to get too cynical about the human condition. I’m well aware of what happens in history. You know, I’m well aware of secret agreements, you know, both in World War I and in World War II that were triggered, right, because, hey, or violated, and then things are unleashed. Right? I mean, this is not pleasant stuff for people to look at. Most people don’t want to look at the Pandora’s box of history, ’cause it’s not pleasant. It just isn’t.
And so you have enormous power. Power is pathological when you start using it for other purposes. Power itself–Lord Acton’s right–does tend to corrupt. That doesn’t mean it always corrupts, but it tends to, because most people cannot resist the siren call of what it can do for you.
JAY: When you talk about disturbing dark questions at the heart of this dark state, do you think that’s one of the reasons that what the NSA knew pre-9/11, more wasn’t done on, ’cause it leads to the Saudis if Graham’s commission’s right?
DRAKE: In part it does. But they’re also caught up at even the higher levels of the government. And it’s not just NSA, but NSA is a secret military intelligence agency. It was signed into being by virtue of a stroke of a pen by President Truman. It was never legislated into existence. It was secret. Military intelligence. You’ve got to be real here about what that agency does. It’s headed by now a four-star general. You know, that’s a military order. That’s a military rule. It’s not led by a civilian. It reports up through the Department of Defense historically. Now we’ve got the DNI.
NSA routinely broke U.S. laws, even prior to the 1970s. That all came out–much of it came out, not all of it, in the Church and Pike committees, even the Rockefeller Commission. Right? I mean, I could argue that NSA’s broken the law for most of its history. Remember, it was foreign intelligence. You are designed to break–didn’t matter what the rules were or the laws of any respective country: you were going to collect whatever you needed to collect for the purposes of national security. And national security is the purview of the president.
JAY: So, again,–
DRAKE: That’s the national security state.
JAY: –why do you stay in it? And why then–it sounds to me like you could have had other opportunities to blow the whistle that might have put you in the same predicament. You do–.
DRAKE: Yeah, but this is different.
DRAKE: The earlier ones were–you know, you’re talking about just fraud and waste. This is a whole different matter. This is actual violations of the Constitution, willful, deliberate violations.
JAY: Meaning mass surveillance.
DRAKE: Mass surveillance. Remember, I was on the very program in which we were helping the FBI, myself and a colleague. Right after 9/11, we were tasked and all approved to help put together the affidavit information that would go up before the secret court. That was the secret court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in 1978 under the Carter administration, which in itself was a compromise. This was the means by which the secret–you still have to meet Fourth Amendment probable cause thresholds to issue a warrant, although there were hot pursuit, where you actually could pursue if the threat was that great, but you’d still go back to the court for the warrant. Completely bypassing it.
We were taken off that effort. When I confronted Maureen Baginski, she said that they’ve gone with a different program. I knew when she told me that–this was in the first few weeks after 9/11–that we were way across the Rubicon. We were in a whole new vehicle. It wasn’t just the wheels came off; we are in a whole new vehicle I did not recognize. It was an alien form of government. I didn’t take the oath to defend an alien form of government.
JAY: And you think it gets created whole cloth just after 9/11, there’s no pre-thinking here?
DRAKE: No, this goes all the way back to 1947. I could point to ’47 as the epigenesis of the national security state.
JAY: So this is taking advantage of crises to establish things that have been worked out.
DRAKE: Sure it is. Yes. And I’m well aware of other things that happened in terms of emergency orders in case of national crises.
JAY: For example?
DRAKE: COG, you know, continuity of government, right? I’m well aware of mechanisms that have been in place even during the Cold War,–
JAY: Continuity of government meaning if–.
DRAKE: –which essentially establish martial law, a virtual martial law, and real martial law if necessary. This was all–all of this thinking, not just conceptual, but all the planning, the mindset, the view was already in place.
JAY: And isn’t that kind of the whole point about how these people view the Constitution, that the Constitution can essentially be suspended whenever it’s pragmatic to do so?
DRAKE: That’s–and you just–remember, I’m witnessing in secret the subversion of the Constitution. So what does that mean? They’re setting it aside.
JAY: So how come–you’re working with all your colleagues. How come you stick your neck out? At this moment, when it becomes so overt, it’s been going on for years, and most people are saying to themselves it’s been going on for years, why should I stick my neck out? This is all kind of going on during the Cold War; this is kind of just at a new scale. It’s not brand-new. But you stick your neck out and you say no. Why?
DRAKE: I owed it to the people. I took the oath. I wasn’t going to break the oath that I took. The oath mattered to me. It was the fourth time I had taken it. It mattered. And here’s the president committing high crimes and misdemeanors as defined by the Constitution.
JAY: And how did it feel?
DRAKE: Suspending the Constitution because we had failed to provide, under the preamble, the common defense, suspending the Constitution, for all intents and purposes, willfully and deliberately. So the only thing left that I have is defend it. So I decided to keep defending it from within until I no longer could. That’s when I went outside the system. And that’s what got me in trouble.
JAY: And how did it feel that the president who got elected next, who’s supposed to be the anti-Bush, is the one, President Obama, who actually is the one that targets you?
DRAKE: Obama knew about my case personally, okay? I know that for a fact, because he was confronted in the Oval Office when he was given a transparency award in secret. And everybody who was there–and it was related to me–his body language said everything, where he actually leaned forward on the edge of his chair, basically saying, we just can’t have these kind of leaks, you know, can’t damage the national security of the United States. National security, as I have said, is the secret religion of the state. You don’t question it. We’ll excommunicate you.
JAY: You can’t be president and question it, not and live.
DRAKE: Well, you know, that’s a pretty strong statement you make. But he was given a silver platter in secret with all the goodies of presidential power. And if you’re the new president and you look at that platter, you’re not going to put it back in the drawer. You’re going to keep it, right, out for use if you need to. Why would you take off the platter, the presidential power platter, why would you take those items off? You know, you’re the president, after all.
JAY: Well, let’s look at the other side of this.
DRAKE: He’s certainly not defending the Constitution.
JAY: Yeah. But essentially–.
DRAKE: Defending the national security state. That’s what’s being defended.
JAY: But they’re arguing the reason they’re doing it is ’cause there’s real threats out there.
DRAKE: That’s an end justifies the means. That’s Machiavelli. We’re doing this for your own good. Stand aside. We’re the authority. We have the power, you don’t. That’s not a constitutional republic.
JAY: Well, I think they would argue, if they were being honest, that you can’t have a constitutional republic and defend the United States against its threats. That really is the argument.
DRAKE: That means that they consider the Constitution a suicide pact.
JAY: Or a convenient thing to have out there when you need it.
DRAKE: Well, you’ve got to keep the masses–some would say the sheeple, right–in line. And so, yes, we have the convenient veneer of a Constitution under which we all, quote-unquote, take an oath to support and defend, including Michael B. Hayden, when he was a general and when he was director of the CIA as a civilian, when he retired as a four-star.
But all that doesn’t matter. We have an existential crisis. As I was told, you don’t understand, Mr. Drake. Exigent conditions apply. Emergency action is necessary to deal with the threat. It doesn’t matter that we failed to protect people, protect the nation, we did not keep people out of harm’s way. And that whole national security state apparatus, put into place formally in 1947, in the Cold War, just got transmuted into the 21st century with a new existential threat. And it was going to be decades, if not longer, that we would have to deal with it.
JAY: And is it possible to have or be the global hegemon? Is it possible to have the kind of foreign policy where there’s military bases all over the world? Is it possible to have all the extra economic advantage that global military power gives you and still have a constitutional republic at home?
DRAKE: No, because the chickens always come home to roost. The same–the very policy mechanism you apply in foreign adventures will come home to roost.
The irony, of course, for me is that the United States became the Petri dish for mass surveillance. That’s what I became eyewitness to. That was exported overseas as if mass surveillance was the answer. Remember, mass surveillance has far less to do with protecting people than it does to drive national security interests and protect national security interests.
JAY: And how do you define–or how do they define national security interests?
DRAKE: National security interests is what they define based on what needs to be protected for those who are in power and to protect the policies that they implement. It has far less to do with liberty and real security.
JAY: When I asked Larry Wilkerson this–and a somewhat similar story in many ways; you know, someone who joined the Armed Forces to fight in Vietnam, was in the Bush administration, and got completely disillusioned by it all–his answer was, in the final analysis what kind of shook him is how banal the interest is in the end, ’cause it’s actually about money. It’s really–.
DRAKE: Actually, I can make a very powerful economic argument to the whole–this whole thing is just an enterprise.
JAY: Go ahead.
DRAKE: It makes people a whole lot of money. Because that’s partly what I was more than eyewitness to.
Look, when I was going around, just to give you an example, right after 9/11, the workforce knew we had failed the nation. People really took it hard, ’cause that was our responsibility was to provide for the common defense, and we hadn’t done that, so almost 3,000 people are murdered. So we’re going around the campus. I’m with Maureen Baginski. Guess what she–how is she explaining it?
JAY: Who is?
DRAKE: Maureen Baginski, the signals intelligence director, the person I reported to–going around, very visible person, because it’s the largest organization at NSA by far. It’s the offensive side of NSA, not the defensive side. You know, it’s the core mission of NSA.
And her explanation is that 9/11 was a gift to NSA. And then she said, we will get all the money we want and then some. It was clear that this was not just–the failure was now going to result in all kinds of money. And that’s why during the 50th anniversary of NSA, which took place in the fall of 2002–and I was there–I remember Hayden up on the dais receiving this big check, like the fake check Publishers Clearing House, right, that they used to have and made a big deal out of it with the cameras rolling–oh, wow; you won $1 million. Well, let’s just say there was a number, right, and it was in the billions, and it was one of the then House staff managers–his name was Tim Sample–who was handing this check over to Hayden. And I clearly remember, although I could not hear the words, but it was clear just from his–I can sort of lip read. He was looking down at George Tenet, then pointing to the check, looking back to George and saying, George, I got my money, George, I got my money.
Look, if you’re at NSA and you’re–you’re going to get all the money you want and then some. You really are. Billions and billions were poured, not just NSA, but throughout–CIA, FBI, you name it. This became a huge jobs program. I mean, the quickest way to become a millionaire was to start a small company, as many of my colleagues did–hire five or six people. You’re an instant millionaire.
JAY: ‘Cause you can sell these services to the NSA.
DRAKE: Yeah, and then you can replicate them with the other agencies.
JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we’ll talk about the controversy over what kind of program to use.
DRAKE: But it’s one of the big elephants in the room. Look, I mean, this–you say war or crisis profiteers. Why–what the heck. I’m not going to let this go to waste. And it doesn’t matter that it’s the national treasure of the United States. It doesn’t matter if it’s American taxpayer money. And, of course, this is–almost all of this was being deficit funded anyways. It doesn’t matter. This is for national security. We’re going to get what we want.
JAY: And it doesn’t matter this was really all preparation for the invasion of Iraq that might’ve cost 1 million Iraqis’ lives.
DRAKE: The truth be told, they were looking for an excuse to invade Iraq before 9/11. They had it. That was the real priority in terms of what we would do militarily overseas.
JAY: From day one.
DRAKE: Yes, from day one.
JAY: Of the Bush administration.
DRAKE: Right. Other people forget as well is that NSA was circulating–during the presidential transition team period, the PTT, Bush is elected, Clinton is still–well, he’s president-elect, but he’s not the president yet. He has not taken the oath. There was a memo that was circulated by NSA seeking relief on the probable cause standard on the Fourth Amendment. They were already looking for ways to erode it significantly.
JAY: So if your highest foreign-policy priority in reality from the very beginning is the invasion of Iraq, then it’s not a big surprise you de-prioritize terrorism, because, heck, wouldn’t that be a nice excuse–
JAY: –for what our number-one priority is?
DRAKE: And then conveniently link it–which was, of course, completely framed, that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. It had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.
JAY: Okay. We’re going to continue this discussion. Please join us for the continuation of Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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